“Where did that come from?!” Mal barged into the cockpit.
“I’d set the course. And trust me, that should not be there!” Wash said, pointing in front of him.
“My trust in you is waning every second our death approaches. How’s about you take some evasive action?” Mal said, panic bleeding through his sarcasm.
“I’m on top of it,” Wash said.
“Sure didn’t sound like it when you called me up here.”
“Caught me by surprise is all,” Wash explained. “One minute I’m arranging my dinosaurs, the next I’m looking up and a planet is coming at me! It came out of nowhere. According to the system, it doesn’t exist. I mean, planets are big. They show on the screen.”
“This one didn’t. You live ‘n’ you learn,” Mal said. He felt his heartbeat steadying. Serenity was not going to crash.
“So, we gonna live?” Zoe ran up the stairs to the cockpit.
“Ask your husband,” Mal said.
“I’m taking ‘evasive action’. See? No dying today.”
While Wash was doing some of his very best piloting, Zoe stood behind his chair and stared at the planet. Suddenly she turned to Mal and asked: “Sir, aren’t you curious?”
“You wanna land?” Mal looked surprised.
“Well, it is a mysterious planet that nearly killed us.”
“You’re really sellin’ it, honey,” Wash said. “But when it comes to planets, I kinda prefer the less lethal ones.”
“There’s water on it, sir.” Zoe was looking at the scanner screen. It was telling them the planet was terra-formed.
to get some water,” Mal admitted. He spoke into the com: “This is your Captain.
Prepare for landing… Normal landing. No crashing and dying involved.”
The crew gathered in the cargo bay. Mal holstered his gun. From the corner of his eye he saw Jayne loading Vera. Jayne’s love for that gun really was his redeeming feature.
“Can I come?” Kaylee asked. She gave Mal her sweetest smile to say “please”.
“Ain’t going on a picnic,” the Captain said. “We’re here just to get water. Wash is ready to get us off this rock the second we’re done. I’m taking Zoe and Jayne with me to see what we’re dealing with here. The rest of you, sit tight.”
“Is this a good idea?” Simon asked.
“Mine never are. But this was Zoe’s. So it remains to be seen,” Mal said and opened the airlock doors.
“Don’t worry, doc. We’re in the middle of nowhere. Alliance don’t come this far out,” Zoe said and as if to emphasize her point – in a way that rather undermined it – she cocked her gun with relish and followed Mal and Jayne.
Simon watched their silhouettes against the planet’s bright light as they walked out of the airlock. “Alliance don’t come this far out, planets don’t sneak up on you. I don’t think rules apply here,” he said to himself. He felt someone brush past him. It was River, heading for the open doors. “No, River! Wait!” Simon shouted. “You’re not wearing any shoes!”
River wasn’t fond of shoes. When you feel the ground with your bare feet, you know where you stand. The light of the strange planet blinded her for a moment. The new air hit her skin and her lungs all hot and dry. She stepped on the alien terrain. The cool smoothness of the ship’s metal changed into the warm graininess of sand. “Wanderer,” River whispered.
Mal could hear a faint humming sound and was about to point it out to Zoe but got distracted by the fact that his entire crew, except for Wash, had gathered outside the ship. “You people deaf or something? I told you to sit tight,” Mal said, looking extremely annoyed. “We don’t know what’s out here. Could be monsters. Or just real unfriendly folk.”
“Or nothing at all,” Inara said. And she was right. The planet was barren. A wasteland full of sand and nothing else as far as the eye could see. But Mal had learned never to count on what he could see. There was always something more. Some nasty surprise… waiting just for him. He took these things somewhat personally. Losing a war can do that to you.
“Where’s that water then?” Jayne asked. “It’s a gorramn desert.”
Then it started raining, and not just raining but pouring. They got as many containers and buckets out as they could find and gathered the rainwater. Then they stood in the airlock, soaking wet, and watched the desert turn into a vast muddy puddle.
Suddenly the air turned freezing cold. The water turned into snow. They stared at the arctic view in wonder. Kaylee placed one of the water buckets back outside. “We’ll have some crushed ice for dessert today,” she said.
“Wow, it’s cold!” Wash appeared into the airlock. Mal shot him one of those captain-y looks and was about to open his mouth but Wash was quicker. “Can’t take off in this blizzard,” he said and huddled up to his wife for warmth. Just as the idea of being stranded on the strange planet dawned on them in its dreadful unpleasantness, the snowstorm turned into a tropical rainstorm. A moment later, when the rain ceased, the earth seemed to absorb all the water in an instant and resumed its desert state.
“This planet don’t make no kinda sense,” Jayne said, stepping back outside. “And it’s makin’ that stupid sound. Anyone else hear that hummin’?”
“It sounds like an engine,” Kaylee said.
“There’s other ships here?” Jayne tensed and looked around like he was expecting to be attacked.
“No ships. Engine,” River said and pressed her ear to the ground.
“Doc! She’s gone full on crazy again,” Jayne shouted.
“No. She’s right,” Kaylee said and followed River’s example. She could feel the ground vibrating… and she could hear the engine deep inside the planet.
“Everyone inside. Now! We’re leaving before it gets all Christmassy again,” Mal commanded. “Wash, get us out of here!”
“But I’m tellin’ you, the planet had an engine!” Kaylee said. They were all seated around the kitchen table and eating strawberry-flavored crushed ice.
“Planets don’t generally require an engine to orbit,” Simon pointed out.
“Shut up,” Kaylee laughed and elbowed Simon, making him spill his ice. “Ask your sister. She knows there was an engine. Right, River?”
“The planet had no orbit,” River said. She poked the red ice in her cup. It didn’t look like food to her.
“So, let me just recap: Impossible weather, no orbit, and an internal engine?” Simon said and raised an eyebrow. “Scientifically speaking –”
“Don’t make no kinda sense,” Jayne finished his sentence.
“Not everything has to,” Shepherd Book stated.
Kaylee turned to Mal. “I wonder where it’s going,” she said, like she was expecting him to know the answer. Mal set his empty cup on the table. “Nowhere. Everywhere. Just moving through space like the rest of us,” he said.
“You know what that planet was,” Wash said, looking at Mal and Zoe. The three of them were alone in the cockpit.
“The insane climate would suggest terra-forming gone wrong,” Zoe said.
“And the engine?” Wash asked. He wasn’t going to let this go.
Zoe took a deep breath. “Imagine you had a wrecking ball the size of a planet.” She let that sink in for a while and continued: “I’d never seen one before, but we’d heard tales of Alliance experiments in the war. Inhabitable planets turned into weapons.”
“Is it heading somewhere?” Wash asked, alarmed.
“I don’t think so. It’s just driftin’,” Mal said. He looked at the stars and all the dark nothingness between them. “War’s over.”